watching from the sidelines

I ran errands alone last weekend.  Usually Maddie is my faithful companion.  Her mouth, running a mile a minute, keeps me from getting too deep into my own thoughts.   She’s so much fun with her stories and antics but, she was with her dad for the day, I was on my own.   While the prospect of  grocery shopping alone, at first, sounds amazing, I have to admit, I missed her.  The car ride was quiet and I was feeling a little melancholy.

I’ve always been a people watcher, I love to figure out the story of those I’m watching, put together who they are and what they’re doing. Like others watch a movie, I watch people.  Its one of my indulgences, watching other live.  Those close to me are often entertained by my sharing that the couple dining at the table next to us just got a new puppy or that the teenagers behind us at the movies are on their first date.

Today was no different.  I pulled into the parking lot and immediately noticed what appeared to be a mother and daughter coming out of the store.  The daughter was older than Maddie, maybe 13, and they were clearly enjoying their time together.  I felt the familiar pull and turned off the car to watch for a few minutes before I went in.

The mom pushed the cart full of grocery bags; the daughter skip walked along side her.  Their mutual affection seemed genuine, they talked and laughed all the way to their van and, once there, continued chatting while they loaded the groceries into the back of the vehicle.  The young girl, though a preteen, was fully interacting with her mom, no iPhone or iPod in site.  I smiled.   They seemed so happy.

As they were piling the bags into the back of the car, one fell out dumping groceries on the ground and, at the same time, the one the daughter was holding broke, dumping those groceries on the ground, too.  The girls looked at each other and, surprisingly, they both started to laugh.   The mom mock screamed and jumped up and down while the daughter clapped her hands.   I watched in awe as they bent down and worked together to pick up the spilled groceries, still chatting, still laughing.

I think what surprised me the most was that it surprised me.   I was shocked that they seemed to be having fun and that, though they dropped groceries all over the ground, they didn’t let it get to them, they made the best of the situation.

I started to think about Maddie and me, and the time we spend together.   And, while I think Maddie and I have a good relationship, I still felt bad.  I admit – I wouldn’t have laughed if everything fell on the ground; I wouldn’t have been able to keep on bantering.   I might have snapped at her…. maybe not…. but I wouldn’t have laughed.  I would have instantly been worried about what was ruined, money that was wasted.  I would have been annoyed at the additional headache of picking up the spilled items.    Maybe my reaction is normal and maybe I just caught these two women on a particularly good day…. maybe….  But it tugged at my heart, made me sad for Maddie and for me.

My whole life I have felt like I was somehow watching from the sidelines. Not in the game.  On the bench.   As far back as I can remember, I have felt a sense of watching others to see how they were doing things, what reactions they had during life events like the first day of school, recess, birthday parties or when our team got a touchdown.   I didn’t think I was feeling what they felt, so I watched what they did, tried to do it the right way.   I mimicked their actions but never fully internalized the emotion, went through the motions but without feeling what I thought I was supposed to feel.   I didn’t join sports teams or clubs because I didn’t feel like I fit in, felt like I’d walk on the field or into the room and be asked to leave, labeled a fraud.  They’d somehow know and not want me amongst their ranks.    Every day it seemed like everyone else was having “fun” and somehow I was there, but wasn’t having that same fun.   I smiled, laughed, cheered, copied the actions of those around me but I wasn’t living it, I was only watching.  To this day, I still have trouble entering a room that is already full.   I expect everyone to turn and point at me, realizing instantly that I am an interloper and have me escorted out.

I didn’t eat lunch in the lunchroom for four years in high school.  I bought pizza and a milk every day, and ate the pizza walking down the hall heading outside when it was warm enough and to the library when it wasn’t.  The high school cafeteria, to me, was a horrifying place and I could not find a way to conquer that fear.   No one was being mean.   I wasn’t disliked or mistreated, I just wasn’t there.

I don’t blame my classmates.  It was me.  I didn’t know how to be a friend, how to fit in with the groups of girls: laughing, giggling and gossiping.  I felt alien next to them but it was in my own head.  They weren’t mean or dismissive, in fact, if I did find myself in a social situation with them, I was included and they always laughed at my jokes.   It wasn’t them, not at first; early on it was me, only me.   Then, over time, it WAS me.   It became who I was, the distinction being it was no longer conscious, it just was.  A comfortable pair of jeans, but ones I could no longer take off.

As I got older, I found I functioned much more easily with the back and forth of friendship when it was just one on one.  I could better navigate the waters when I was the only captain, and though I wasn’t bossy or controlling, I made friends who were happier being in smaller groups,  better suited to having just me in their lives.   I have been a serial monogamous friendship girl most of my existence.   Some of my friends stuck around longer than others, but eventually each moved on to a BFF relationship inside a larger social group.  It tends to be how society operates and it hurt every time, but I couldn’t find a way to feel “normal” within the confines of the larger group.  The more people involved – the more restricted and isolated I felt.

Somewhere along the way my intake of situations, how I processed interactions, was so different or so it seemed, than that of my peers.  It was almost as if the way it hit my brain wasn’t how it actually happened.  The simplest conversations felt HUGE.  The slightest misunderstanding tormented me for days; I’d replay what I said, what others said, over and over.  I’d also miss actual problems, find out someone was mad over something I had no idea would upset them.   I couldn’t find the balance and the rules seemed so murky.

Over the years, I developed a quick wit for which I was appreciated, but with that came a quick bite, for which I was not.   To avoid the torment or hurt that came with being so at odds with my inner voice, I snapped out when negative attention came my way, crushing whoever dared cross me or make me feel uncomfortable.   It was my protective covering and it exists to this day.  It’s not something I’m proud of, but its something I’ve come to believe I need and something I know I need to let go.

There were bursts of normality along the way and I do have friends and fun.  I  attend events and enjoy myself a good bit of the time.   As I have aged, it has gotten easier on many levels.    But I’ve always felt different than what I thought others felt.   Even now, there are times when I am truly just going through the motions.

I watch, therefore, I’m not.

To that end,  Facebook has been a good medium for me, allowing me to reconnect with people from the past and to realize I was not disliked, more that I was considered aloof and disinterested.  I was shocked to learn that they thought I was funny, figured I had other friends and  just assumed I didn’t want to be friends with them!  How sad.  I wish I had known.

With Facebook, I have been able to keep in contact with people I’ve known only on a surface level like parents of kids I’ve coached, former coworkers and friends of friends.  I’m even friends with a few ex-boyfriends.  Its great!  I can make these people, my online friends, laugh from the safety of my couch and not have to actually interact with them.   I can quickly strike out with a funny or a kind comment and then hide again, waiting for their response.   It’s a great match, most live too far away to expect me to attend their parties, share their real lives.  It’s been perfect!

Well…. maybe not so perfect at all.

Because of my perceived inability to feel like others feel, I also tend to treat each situation as something I have to get through – not enjoy, not live…. just endure until its over.  I don’t know why I do it, but I guess it’s the same thing as not being able to fully be in the moment.   I plan my kids’ birthday parties with the same level of enthusiasm as I do planning a trip to the dentist.   Unlike the woman and her daughter at the grocery store, I treated life’s errands as hurdles instead of allowing that special time alone with my daughter to let me smile and laugh.   Instead, I just do my best to get through it.  How hard is that to admit.

Don’t misunderstand, I want my kids to enjoy themselves, want so much for them never to feel this emptiness I have always felt, I want balloons and cake and presents for them…. I want them to feel the spirit of these special – and not so special – events in a way I never could.  I want them to feel happiness in every day things like kittens, sunny days, the beach, sledding in the backyard, camping and, most importantly, friendships.   I want them to have real friendships, oh how I want that for them.   I want them to have joy….


Shit.  I want so much for her to have a mom that feels joy:  joy in her, for her and because of her.   A mom who feels….

By living in my dissociative state, I’ve missed out on joy.    Happiness.  Gratitude.   My life.    I’ve missed out sharing their joy: Her.  TJs.   I was there, but I wasn’t.    That’s not ok.

Sunday was Easter; it was also my 48th birthday.   48 years of standing on the sidelines, not feeling (and yet feeling so deeply) is more than enough.  I may never figure out what made me this way, but I must figure out how to get it “unmade.”

Missing the highs in life is no longer acceptable.   I think of the little girl I was and of the little girl I’m blessed to have.   I owe each of these girls to live my life to the fullest, to enjoy what I have while I have it.   I once felt hope and though, at some point early on it died, it was there and I let it slip away, failing that little girl Elizabeth, failing Maddie, failing me.   I won’t let those little girls down anymore and, equally important, I won’t give up on me.   Won’t live half a life when I have no reason to do anything but enjoy, to find joy.

I made a promise to Maddie on my 48th birthday, though she doesn’t know I did.   I vowed I’d tune back in, let go of my fears and find joy in every day events.  I promised to feel the both the ups and downs and to allow myself to laugh when my first instinct may be to hold back.   I promised to be someone that could be observed in a parking lot, laughing and loving life with her beautiful daughter.

I promised I’d be the one living while someone else watched from the sidelines.


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